It's a word thing and a woman thing

Books: The monthly book discussion group becomes the latest form of female fellowship.

April 29, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Intellectual and cultural curiosities are being entertained over hot fudge sundaes in a parlor side room in Hampden, where Mary Pat Clarke leads 30 women in a discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

This Baltimore tableau -- which took place Tuesday night -- is part of a larger and flourishing phenomenon reaching as far as Miami and Los Angeles: the monthly book club. It's a thing of the busy '90s as surely as the twist was a creature of the swinging '60s.

They have fun names, too, like the Sunday Evening Chocolate Society and Between the Lines. Oprah Winfrey helped to generate this wave, and the "readers group guides," which are discussion questions issued by publishing houses, are riding it.

One other thing is clear: It is something that mostly women do. Not that guys are not invited into the conversation; it's more that this is the latest form of female fellowship, perhaps taking the place of the PTA, the bridge club or the coffee klatch of old, participants say.

"That's a self-edit," said Mary Pat Andrea, the gift shop owner who organized the evening series, when asked why it was a female society.

"All book clubs are women," stated Carla Cohen, a Baltimore native and co-owner of Politics and Prose, a Northwest Washington bookstore.

The numbers almost back her up: Of the 200 Washington and Maryland book clubs registered with Politics and Prose, 198 are all-women and two are coed.

The same is true in the three Bibelot bookstores in Baltimore and Baltimore County,which cater to more than 100 book clubs, said owner Brian Weese.

"Women want to delve into the personalities of characters, twists of plot and why a turn of phrase is used," he said. "I'm not aware of any all-male clubs."

The reason this movement has gained so much ground in the past five years may be as simple as women yearning to create community and seeking the company of women in the absence of other civic engagements.

The clubs are often loosely based on an alma mater, synagogue, common friends, a neighborhood or school where their children meet, bookstore owners say.

The rationale heard most often by Sharlene Krantz, who arranges book group orders and programs for Politics and Prose, is: "It makes me do something for myself."

"They meet at night, so it's a time for working women to do something unattached to career and family, something that's not a chore," said Roland Park writer Kathy Hudson.

She led last month's Hampden meeting, which covered Rebecca Wells' Southern mother-daughter yarn, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

The success of that book is heralded as proof of the network's power: "That started out as a book club word-of-mouth," said Juliana Wood, director of marketing and public relations for Bibelot. Other hot book group properties were "Falling Snow on Cedars" and "The Remains of the Day."

At Tuesday's gathering in Cafe Hon's 1940s-style West 36th Street side room, a table was framed by a mosaic of lives: a 41-year-old doctor from Roland Park, a 31-year-old paralegal from Fallston and two lively elderly women who have been neighbors in Brooklyn for nearly 50 years.

After their domestic discussion touched on babies and outdoor laundry lines, the talk turned to why they signed up for the evening organized by Hometown Girl, the gift shop next door.

"I can take off my paralegal hat and my mommy hat," said Stephanie Sprouse. "It's good grown-up time."

Dr. Nancy Codori said she recently had a son, which made her resolve, "On days I watch my son, I'm going to do something adult."

The friends from Brooklyn, Ruth McFadden, 75, and Rosemary Green, 69, are active in their local library. Green is president of the Brooklyn branch of the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Some of them found the post-slavery dialect in Hurston's writing hard to read. But Clarke, a former City Council president and mayoral candidate who holds a master's degree in English, communicated her command of and her love for Hurston's 1937 work in a way that made a few murmur that they'd "have to read the book again in a different light."

Hurston, born and raised in predominantly African-American Eatonville, Fla., "was a spiritual godmother to [writers] Toni Morrison and Alice Walker," said Clarke, 57. She told the group that Hurston, a folklorist and writer who died in obscurity in her hometown, had the misfortune of writing in the sunset of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural boom-time.

"The dream is the truth," a line of Hurston's, was read out loud by Clarke as reverently as if it were poetry.

In the end, the group agreed, it was about voice.

Women tell their tales in many voices and through myriad venues, including houses, gardens, quilts and words, said Milford Mill Academy teacher Linda Brown.

The next meeting, May 18, will be a $12 dinner discussion led by Carla Hayden, director of the Pratt library, of "Tender at the Bone," a book of food criticism by Ruth Reichl.

There is waiting list room only.

Call Hometown Girl at 410-662-4438 for more information.

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